Saturday, January 25, 2014

Embarrassed a Pulitzer Prize Winner too!

I remember, not long ago, on 8 January actually, writing: "Any time our home state, Oklahoma, gets itself into the news it's always for something either horrific, or vaguely embarrassing!" Here we go again! This time it's relating to something both horrific and embarrassing.

In the February issue of Vanity Fair Buzz Bissinger, a Pulitzer prize-winning author has written an article about our home town in Oklahoma, and the dreadful murder which happened here last summer. (See my post here). It's puzzling that Vanity Fair should suddenly bring the topic to the fore once more. Perhaps it's because the three young men accused of the murder will be in court again soon.

Mr Bissinger's article didn't impress me one little bit, Pulitzer prize or not. I felt the article wasn't well-written, and was grossly unfair. He concentrates too much on the town rather than on the crime - as though the town itself were to blame. He trots out the old saw about there being "2 sides of the track" in Duncan. In every town I've lived in, in England, (many, and in all regions) there were equivalent areas to the 2-sides of the track metaphor. In our town it just so happens that much of the poorer area is actually located on one side of the rail tracks.

I get the feeling that Buzz Bissinger, from Pennsylvania - Wikipedia states: "He divides his time between homes in Philadelphia and the Pacific Northwest," obviously suffers from the "fly-over" syndrome, and has little knowledge, and a low opinion of, anything in between. Wiki also says: "In a column published in GQ, Bissinger states he is a shopaholic with an obsession for expensive designer clothes, spending $638,412.97 between 2010 and 2012. " Hmm.

Disclaimer. I have no great love for this town myself. When I'd been here for a month or two I came to the conclusion I'd stepped back in time to the 1950s, wrote to friends in that vein telling them that here, "there's a church on every corner instead of a pub!" The town's (and state's) politics are a complete anathema to me, as would be Buzz Bissinger's. Wikipedia states that he endorsed Mitt Romney in 2012. The town itself, though, is no worse than dozens of others in Oklahoma, and other states. In some ways it is better than many. There is certainly a lot of poor, run-down housing here which does contrast sharply with some huge mansion-type houses in a treed-in area on the north side of town. There's old oil money here, obviously. Haliburton used to be based here. None of that has any bearing on the horrendous random cold-blooded murder of a visiting student out on a quiet road, running, one day last summer.

Even the photograph accompanying Bissinger's piece is misleading. It's supposed to be Main Street, it is, but right at the end of quite a thriving true Main Street, with many non-chain businesses. The street, in reality is far from the description he gives:
"The city had just glossed up its Web site, using as its backdrop a picture of downtown Main Street glittering in the twilight. The image looked warm and inviting, something plucked from a stage set. But in reality downtown had died as a center of commerce long ago."
In every town in Oklahoma and in every other state we've visited, there is an older downtown area, equivalent to Main Street. These were once the hubs of commerce and retail, back in the 1940s, 50s, 60s. Now, in some towns these areas are completely derelict. In some other towns, like Duncan, they have been refurbished; private businesss owners have brought the area back to life. The now inevitable corporate chain businesses continue to grow up elsewhere in every town, almost like a secondary town in some cases.

That dreadful murder of last summer wasn't brought about by location, in my view. It was brought about by many things: ease of access to guns, constant de-sensitisation through depictions of violence in movies, TV, video games; maybe drugs, plus one sociopathic ringleader. Racism? No more here than anywhere else - less if anything, I'd say.

Buzz Bissinger was quite the wrong guy to send on a mission here. He might write a decent novel, but he doesn't seem to understand what I've come to realise. This is "the real USA".....this!. I see it, even though a foreigner here, as well as a US citizen and, shock horror, a socialist!


Kaleymorris said...

Thank you.

Twilight said...

Kaleymorris ~ You're welcome! :-)

mike said...

I thought Buzz Bissinger did a splendid essay on the murder. I don't live in your city, so I have no sense of your particular pride or prejudice against his writing. I've lived in many cities and states, so I bear no favoritism and view them objectively.

I enjoyed Bissinger's brief description of Duncan and, yes, I think you are correct in saying that Duncan is representative of MOST of the USA, but not all. The author captures the bored, volatile, impoverished youth of anywhere USA, and the potential for their antics to become apocalyptic to stoke their egos. It's very sad that this incident occurred in your city, but it did happen in your city...what can anyone say? He wrote perhaps 20% about the city itself and the rest on the people involved.

It's much like when Truman Capote wrote "In Cold Blood"...I remember the population of Holcomb, Kansas was livid with Capote's depictions of their citizens and community. Or on the opposite extreme, the Menendez brothers' murder of their parents in tony, upscale Beverly Hills, CA...privileged youth gone murderous gave an nasty overview of the elite in a city of the rich and famous.

His description of Duncan served as a prelude to the perpetrators' was brief...I never felt the author was accusing Duncan of causing this, but presented a back-drop of a small town with inherent socioeconomic consequences for its disenfranchised. I've seen the same type of descriptions of large and small towns that have errant youth. The national news often showcases youth outreach organizations that offer food, physical activities, counseling, continuing education and tutoring assistance, and positive adult mentoring to keep these vulnerable kids out of gangs''s been proven that these programs can have very positive outcomes for the youth.

Our delinquent youth is a national epidemic. The author lays the groundwork for his interpretation of the events surrounding the Duncan murder with a platform that can be applied to any of our cities with disparities affecting disenfranchised teens that are too bored, egotistical, drugged, and armed to see anything positive.

We seem to have a crisis in the USA...more kids than ever are acting-out aberrant behaviors.

Twilight said...

mike ~ Well then, we shall disagree on this. I didn't like the author's style or tone, nor the way he presented his piece, hich to me seemed inconsistent, almost as though written by two different authors. Started with flowery descriptive stuff, a little more of that later on, while the rest flatter and factual. My opinion, with no axe to grind on behalf of this town.

If Bissinger had included something along the lines of your last 2 paragraphs, indicating a wider problem, using Duncan as an example of the ills of the nation, the whole thing might have felt less condescending and unfair. He built a platform, right, then jumped off it.

No mention of guns, easy access, - but then he wouldn't would he?
No mention of the inequality that streams through this nation (and others). But then he wouldn't, would he? He's alright Jack!

LB said...

Twilight ~ I think the next to last paragraph of your post summed it up. The TRUTH is often either much simpler or much more complex than people are willing to perceive. It's hard to see from the outside peering in, and frequently, even those on the inside get it wrong, for a variety of reasons.

I grew up in a time and place where violence -or the threat of violence- was an everyday occurrence, with much of it, like the murder that took place in your little town, random and senseless. We experienced murders, shootings, robberies, beatings and other forms of intimidation. If you wanted to survive in our community, you either became *very* tough (even a bully) or else you learned how to pay attention, adapt and toe the line. I kept my eyes down, made myself *invisible* and secretly watched and listened (Neptune/Mercury/Jupiter conjunct in Scorpio in the 2nd/3rd.)

Going through my mother's things after she passed, I discovered an old postcard she'd sent to my grandparents, one they'd apparently considered worth saving - in her note, she wrote how my younger brother -who must've been around 4 years old at the time- had come in from playing one day smelling of bleach and with his face, head and ears burned bright red. When my mother, alarmed, questioned him, he said they'd been playing "pretend shampoo", which meant the older neighborhood bullies (who lived in the same low and middle-income apartment cooperative we did) had targeted my always friendly and therefore vulnerable baby brother as their victim, dumping what was left of a bottle of bleach all over his pale, strawberry blonde head.

No doubt he was lucky, just as there was no doubt they intended to harm him. It was around this same period of time that neighborhood boys (who had the same access we had to grassy playing fields, fully-equipped playgrounds, basketball courts and a nearby YMCA- started trying to blow up cats by stuffing firecrackers down their throats.

When my mother naively tried to deal with all this, first by going directly to the boys' parents and later, by reporting it to the cooperative's management, *nothing* was done. Nothing. That was just one incident. Some were much worse. And sometimes, despite common sense and evidence to the contrary, innocent folks (including innocent kids) got scapegoated or blamed.

It was a very political time and ours was a very politically active and motivated community; our coop's first manager (a genuinely *lovely* man) was a well-known African American civil rights leader, labor activist and communist, yet even he seemed unable to fully grasp or deal with the complexities of this new time.

In the years that followed, political and social pundits made excuses, cast blame, averted their eyes and generally got it wrong a lot of the time. The truth was unpleasant and didn't "fit", so people changed it to make it fit. It was easier that way.

It was the 60's and we were an integrated community, the first of our kind, so naturally larger issues like racism and the ongoing struggle for social and economic justice were constantly in the news, though again, for those of us without political agendas, the truth was often much simpler.

Reading Bissinger's piece, I was reminded of how "the more things change, the more they stay the same."

Humans like to put things in neat little boxes, only life isn't like that. We're all exposed to so much, have been ever since Eve metaphorically ate that forbidden apple and we all became aware of (and responsible for choosing) good and/or evil.

Twilight said...

LB ~ Thanks for your interesting - yet disturbing - contribution.
Bullies and insipient sociopaths have always existed and they've exercised their nastiness according what was available in their times.
Bleach, firecrackers, helpless children and animals....thoughts of it all makes the blood run cold.

In these times, in this country, with 21st century technology and access to firearms disaffected
youths can wreak more extensive havoc and harm, as we read about every day, either in headline or small paragraph, back page news.

As you say causes are complex, could be subtle differences in each case - but location itself may or may not be involved. In the case of Duncan, I do not think location was any part of the complexity of cause.

Bissinger's article is going to be read and interpreted differently by each of its readers. I don't know where Vanity Fair is most read, I suspect maybe not as much in towns like Duncan (I could be wrong). People reading it in the glitzier areas East and West will no doubt sneer a little to themselves, then quickly forget it, I guess. A magazine of the same name in the UK used to be a purely fashion mag which I'd read occasionally - either things have changed or it's same name, different publication.

LB said...

Twilight ~ Life can be terribly unfair, regardless of where we happen to live. And some places can be more challenging than others. It's always been like that, hasn't it?

It doesn't change the fact that to some extent we all still have choices, just as the three young men who are accused of this crime had choices. If not, *everyone* who grew up feeling deprived would resort to senseless violence as a way of coping - but they don't. That's why I shared my story.

Yes, reasons are complex and we can do better as a society at addressing injustice, abuse and apathy, also better at recognizing the truth and dealing with it as it is and not as we *wish* it to be. It's easy to blame the disparity that exists, though as mike pointed out, even individuals from privileged backgrounds commit crimes. It's a human problem that runs deeper than rich or poor, black or white.

Whether we grow up and decide to shoot a stranger or swindle millions of dollars, I still think the people in our immediate childhood environment -our caregivers- have the biggest potential to *influence* our future choices. Not always, but a lot of the time. From then on, and assuming most of us have functioning consciences, each of us bears some responsibility for choosing for ourselves whether to accept or reject the examples our parents, family or other caregivers have set.

I also agree with your observation about the role TV, movies, video and social media have played in desensitizing us, with many young people having lost touch with their innate ability to empathize - which apparently, the three young men accused of this crime have.

From what I can tell, expressions of compassion and empathy for those outside our chosen group aren't seen as having much value. Focusing on how and why we sometimes ignore or lose this ability, *or* why we selectively exercise it, would've made a better story.

LB said...

P.S. In case my comments aren't making it obvious Twilight, I'm pretty much agreeing with you and then some.

mike (again) said...

Writing a factual story always entails answering the who, what, when, WHERE, and why. I think Bissinger achieved that with his essay. He presented the facts and didn't subjectively propagandize this murder with generalities to extrapolate to the American population as a take-home message...that's not the job of this kind of reporting. His essay was NOT about the topics you would have preferred he covered...he wasn't writing an editorial. However, his piece can be extrapolated by the reader, just as you infer...particularly when just about every city across the nation has endured this type of senseless murder.

I can't quite determine why you are so offended (embarrassed) by this, Twilight. If Bissinger had described Corpus in the same way he did your town, I would have accused him of being an optimist and seeing only the good side. LOL! Our local newspaper is full of letters-to-the-editor denigrating our "lovely" city for various reasons. I think the American public has become very accustomed to having bizarre, horrid, unbelievable stuff happening in their very own backyards, Twilight...I don't think most people will hold it against you or your city for the behavior of three creeps out for murderous fun...or the descriptors Bissinger uses to color your community.

If Bissinger is a multi-home, shopaholic, that's fine with me, as long as he doesn't write anti-1% essays. So many of the anti-1% writers make millions of dollars from their rants against the rich, which makes them fakes and hypocrites (Chris Hedges comes to mind)(and I like Chris Hedges!) least he hasn't taken that path.

Guns have been part of the USA from the inception of this country, but only in recent times has the percentage of violent crimes by kids increased dramatically. I'm all for gun control, but there's something more happening to our young people that has caused this uptick in violence...something psychologically damaging is occurring to these juveniles and young adults.

Violence, whether in real life or depictions, is not new to this country, either. Hollywood and TV is built upon violence and has been since the beginning. Violent depictions in books have been around as long as the Christian bible. Something more is affecting these contemporary young people.

Is it all the food dyes in M&Ms?

Twilight said...

LB and mike (again) ~

Thanks for both your additional comments. All gladly received. It's interesting to discover how others see things.

I'll just add this to mike :
you said

that's not the job of this kind of reporting

Well for someone like him, and of his political persuasion, in a publication like VF, you're probably right. Why on earth that mag should decide to run a piece like that is still a mystery to me. If he were more of a John Pilger type writing in a different magazine we might have read a very different article.

Why am I embarressed? Maybe that is the wrong word in this case, yes. I'm annoyed I guess, for the many decent people in this town - but I shouldn't be surprised, having seen the profile of the guy who wrote it.

Let's agree to disagree.

Anonymous said...

I'm originally from Philadelphia and have read Bissinger over the years in our local newspaper. Buzzy is a legend in his own mind.

Twilight said...

Anonymous ~ :-) lol.Or, alternatively , a legend in his own lunchtime?

R J Adams said...

I think perhaps you and I, as ex-pats from a place where a hand gun is virtually impossible to procure and an automatic weapon only found in a military armoury, see America in a different light from the natives. We have something to compare with, the average US citizen doesn't. They can't even begin to envisage a society without firearms. Duncan sounds like the sort of place I spent the first eight years of my American life in. As you rightly point out, your town is no worse than dozens (more likely, hundreds) throughout the country. It's not the town that's to blame; murders occur in every town in every nation on earth. It's all those other things you listed:
"ease of access to guns, constant de-sensitisation through depictions of violence in movies, TV, video games; maybe drugs, plus one sociopathic ringleader."
And, you know, the United States has more than its fair share of sociopaths. It's a society that puts high value on individualism - a perfect breeding ground for the antisocial, conscience-less, individual who doesn't give a tinker's cuss for anyone. All he needs to complete his outfit is a gun. Take your pick, son!
You're probably right about Bissinger. I haven't read the piece, but if you're going to write about a place it pays to live there for a while first.

Twilight said...

RJ Adams ~ Thanks for your thoughts on this, RJ. We British ex-pats are bound to see things differently, especially those of us who had lived a good proportion of our adult lives in the UK.

There are towns much like Duncan in the UK (minus all the churches and plus a few pubs and fish and chip shops) - I grew up in one and couldn't wait to get out of it -did so at age 18.
Thing is,though young people there felt restricted and bored, guns were not an option. Any wrong-doing was more along the lines of fist fights, getting drunk, dangerous driving, etc. Anyone with a modicum of get up and go got up and went. Many did.

Things here in the US, and in the 21st century, are so different.
Almost every day there's at least one incident of a young guy doing a shooting, killing or maiming someone....or many If Bissinger had used the Duncan incident as a starting point for an article investigating reasons generally, I'd not have been writing this post.

Anonymous said...

It's murder when the drapes clash with the words.

Twilight said...

Anonymous ~ :-/